Last December, the U.S. Congress passed the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, also commonly referred to as H.R. 158. This bill restricts the Visa Waiver Program so that citizens of the 38 countries participating in the program with dual citizenship in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan, and those who have visited these countries since March 2011, can no longer enter the U.S. without obtaining a visa.
H.R. 158 was approved in the aftermath of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, and aimed to improve U.S. national security and prevent future attacks. Iran's inclusion in the bill caused uproar in the Iranian-American community because there have been no connections between Iran and the attacks that motivated the bill. Iranian-Americans and civil rights organizations criticized the bill for its overly-broad language and targeting of individuals based upon their national origin. Regardless, H.R. 158 received overwhelming support in Congress and was quickly ratified. Therefore, one must ask, why was Congress so willing to include Iran in the bill when there was no clear nexus between Iran and the recent attacks, and what can be done to challenge this legislative behavior?
The bipartisan support of H.R. 158 is demonstrative of the deeper problem of "Iranophobia," which necessitates a response if one is to prevent future discriminatory policies. As a challenge to this phenomenon, in September 2015, a group of young Iranian students established "See You in Iran," a Facebook platform where former and future Iran travelers can connect and exchange information. Non-Iranians can share their unfiltered narratives about their visit to Iran, and future travelers can ask questions about their upcoming trips. Through this mechanism, "See You in Iran" aims to promote travel and provide an unguided understanding of Iran, a country that been demonized in the West for a long time.
"See You in Iran" creates a horizontal paradigm of information sharing where participants guide the discussion. In this member-run platform individuals convey their own perception and first hand experience of Iran without any intervention by a political structure or entity. "See You in Iran" believes that although its members and audience may experience and be exposed to oppression in Iran one cannot repress the existing political dynamics of the country. Nevertheless, while the group encourages global solidarity and understanding, it adamantly stands for the fact that political repression in Iran is merely an Iranian concern and does not require foreign intervention.
In response to whether "See You in Iran" aims to present a specific image of Iran, Mr. Navid Yousefian, the group's founder, stated, "we do not pursue a presentation of 'real Iran,' because we believe that Iran has many diverse faces and it is not clear whose Iran is implied by that term."
To this end, the group aims to show Iran as an assemblage and to challenge the pervasive monolithic perception of the country. This portrayal is critical, because once a nation is understood in all of its different layers it becomes much more difficult to ratify laws, such as HR158, that punish the collective without a justification.
Imperialism and the Orientalist view of the Middle East have for years shaped Western foreign policy towards Iran and the region. These policies have thrived on the narrative of "us" vs. "them," resulting in cultural isolationism. They have created a sharp divide between citizens of the world who are much more similar in essence than our global politics allow us to recognize. For example, an American citizen wrote to the members of "See You in Iran" stating, "I would buy a ticket to Iran today if I could. However, I'm former US military, as I was seventeen and bought the US neoconservative marketing manual before realizing it was . . . terrible foreign policy to homogenize an entire group of people." Such uncensored comments highlight the importance of the group's efforts in challenging the existing narratives, and effecting the future direction of US and Western foreign policy towards Iran.
Furthermore, the anecdotes shared on "See You in Iran," indicate that while governments insist on identity politics, within the discourse of clash of civilizations, ordinary people's political identities are often based upon affinity. For example, a British visitor recently wrote, "I'd say that one of the main feelings that I have felt since being in Iran is surprise; exemplified both by the sheer amount of staggeringly beautiful natural places throughout the country . . . and the lack of prejudice about being British or American expressed by ordinary Iranian people." It is through exposure that skewed perceptions can be mended and mutual understanding can be fostered.
To date, "See You in Iran" has more than 29,000 members and the numbers are growing daily. New members pose questions regarding upcoming trips and request information on a variety of topics including: best bus routes, hostels, travel safety, free VPN, local restaurants, and currency exchange, among others. Iranian locals' warm and thorough responses to these inquiries are telling of the eagerness among members of the Iranian society to embrace visitors and to defeat the ongoing misconceptions about Iran. Given the extent of the enthusiasm and participation by both non-Iranian and Iranian members of the group, "See You in Iran" aims to launch a mobile app to further facilitate travel to Iran and connect visitors with local Iranians.
Consequently, while politicians contemplate policies and the military-industrial complex lobbies for its own agenda, ordinary citizens have the efficacy to shape the long-term discourse surrounding Western and, in particular, American foreign policy towards Iran. Although Iranian-Americans and their progressive allies joined in unison to fight the ratification of HR158, there is a long-term battle to be fought. "See You in Iran," is part of a greater struggle to diminish ignorance and remedy erroneous narratives that underlie such policies. It is by raising awareness and humanizing the "other" that one can dispel myths, defeat fear, and stand against discriminatory practices. By allowing ordinary citizens to shape their own worldviews one can resist state manufactured narratives that reinforce power discrepancies and thwart democratic values. The goal is that should another HR158 arise, here in the US or abroad, the voice of opposition will not only belong to Iranians, but it will be joined by a diverse set of informed citizens calling upon their elected representatives to stand against such ill informed policies.